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Who's Responsible For Generation O?

Who's Responsible For Generation O?More children than ever are obese, and according to Tufts experts, the battle over who to blame – individuals or the food industry – is just beginning. Boston.

Boston [07.03.03] In a bold move, Kraft - maker of popular brands such as Oreo and Oscar Mayer - recently announced that it is considering reducing sugar and fat in its products. Some say the news is an acknowledgement by the food industry that they are responsible for causing the nation's obesity epidemic, which affects over 40 million Americans and 13 percent of children. But others, including Tufts' Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, say individuals, not just corporations, need to take responsibility for their own nutrition.

"There is a tendency to want to blame the food industry," Lichtenstein - a professor at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy - told The Boston Globe. "We need to get the message across that people have to take responsibility for their actions. Food is not addictive like cigarettes with nicotine."

The Tufts nutrition expert told the Globe that even if Kraft does reduce fat and sugar in its products there is no guarantee that the foods will be more nutritious.

"Lichtenstein said there is no conclusive data on whether low-fat or low-sugar products improve health," reported the Globe. "If the change decreases someone's intake of calories, it will help, but not if consumers add more calories elsewhere in their diet."

The efforts of Kraft are part of a larger movement to improve the health of the nation's children - a population so unprecedentedly overweight that some are nicknaming them "Generation O."
Officials in the New York City school system are so concerned with the problem that they, too, are looking to reduce fat levels in kids' lunches.

"Acknowledging that obesity is epidemic among New York City schoolchildren, the Education Department is reducing the fat content in the 800,000 meals it serves daily and banning candy, soda and other sugary snacks from school vending machines," reported The New York Times.

However, Lichtenstein - also a senior scientist at Tufts' Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging - has doubts that the big apple's education authorities are taking the proper measures to ensure children's health.

"If the aim of the New York City Education Department is to have an effect on the epidemic of obesity among schoolchildren, it should focus on calories and activity levels, not fat," Lichtenstein wrote in a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times. "Limiting a meal's percentage of fat calories sounds helpful, but unless substitutions have fewer calories, the result will be disappointing."

The Tufts expert added, "In the 1990's, the percentage of calories from fat in the American diet was reduced, but there was an increase in weight. Let's not keep making the same mistakes."

While Lichtenstein questions the direction the food industry is taking, another Tufts expert says that it is about time the makers of popular brands take a look at the nutrition value of their products.

James Hyde - associate professor at Tufts' School of Medicine and Director of Tufts' Masters Program in Health Communication - told the Wall Street Journal that the idea that a healthy lifestyle is a matter of personal choice is a common myth.

"The reality is," he told the Journal, "is that healthy behavior is often dictated by factors completely outside the individual's control."


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